Who's Been Reading George Fox's Journal?

I have been using the edition of George Fox’s Journal edited by John L. Nickalls for years, and it was not until I needed a new reading list in connection with some university lectures that I discovered the more recent Penguin edition (1998), edited by Nigel Smith, a Reader in English at Oxford. The opening of Nigel Smith’s introduction is a wonderful surprise:

In the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ of his great experimental novel Ulysses (1922) James Joyce momentarily fuses the lives of the greatest English author William Shakespeare and the early Quaker George Fox: "Christfox in leather trews, hiding, a runaway in blighted treeforks from hue and cry. Knowing no vixen, walking lonely in the chase. Women he won to him, a whore of Babylon, ladies of justice, bully tapsters’ wives. Fox and geese. And in New place a slack dishonoured body that once was comely, once as sweet, as fresh as cinnamon, now her leaves falling, all, bare, frighted of the narrow grave and unforgiven." Joyce’s central character, Stephen Dedalus, is fascinated by Shakespeare’s life, and he imagines here a Shakespeare neglecting his wife Ann Hathaway, as opposed to Fox, who, persecuted and in his famous leather breeches, won many women converts.

So we are not to keep George Fox for ourselves! Just as well, although the tribute Joyce pays to him is not one that I can fully appreciate.

I have myself been wondering what to make of the fact that Ludwig Wittgenstein admired Fox’s Journal. He gave Norman Malcolm (a student and close friend, then teaching at Cornell) a copy for Christmas in 1948, having come across it first in 1912, and told Malcolm that he saw George Fox as a paradigm for what it means to be a religious person. (Others he mentioned in that category include Augustine of Hippo, Francis of Assisi, John Bunyan, and Soren Kierkegaard.) Being a student of Wittgenstein, I reread the Journalwith an eye for what Wittgenstein is likely to have noted and admired. The dozen points that I noted are hardly definitive, but they signal affinities that I find useful to ponder:

  • Utter reliance on what he sees clearly himself.
  • Utter rejection of outward authority, especially of priests and professors.
  • Simple (nonintellectual) recognition of mystical (spiritual) reality.
  • Need for Spirit and Light to see things aright.
  • Passionate and persistent search for purity.
  • Keen awareness of his own troubles, sorrows, and temptations.
  • Sense of evil as a lack or privation, a failure to attend to one’s inward Light.
  • Hence lack of condemnation, combined with high moral sense.
  • Narration rather than argumentation or explanation.
  • Translation of intuitions into actions, or integration of the two.
  • Refusing special status, since everyone has the same inward Light as he.
  • Hence not sparing others the task of thinking and seeing for themselves.

We could, of course, linger long and profitably over the textual basis and significance of each of these points. But rather than do so, I wish to leap to the suggestion that the Quaker-Wittgenstein kinship is manifold, and might be presented schematically as follows:

  • Respect for silence, prominent in Quaker practice and at the end of the Tractatus.
  • Emphasis on common domains of the mind, mental features that we share rather than experience separately and individually.
  • Integral to the importance of silence is a priority of actions over words.
  • One needs to achieve or be blessed with the Light, or with perspicuity, in order to see the world aright. What is most important can only be seen or shown, it cannot be proven either scientifically or logically.
  • Emphasis on the present, prominent in an early letter of George Fox to his parents that "ye have no time, but this present time," and in Wittgenstein’s remark to Moritz Schlick and Friedrich Waismann, core members of the Vienna Circle, that "we already have everything; in fact, it is present, so we do not have to wait for anything."
  • An insistence on alternatives: for Fox and Quakers alternatives to what governments find necessary; for Wittgenstein alternatives to alleged philosophical necessities, both in Tractatus, and also throughout his later philosophical work, where he often notes possible alternatives and comments that the alleged necessity is one of a number of ways in which things may proceed.
  • An intertwining of rationalism with mysticism: respect for science and rational argument combined with insistence on their limits and presuppositions, which require not thinking but seeing things right, either through "that Light and Spirit which was before Scripture was given forth" (Journal) or through "perspicuous representation" (Philosophical Investigations).
  • A similar style of thinking, eschewing theory and dogmatism on one side and theology and ecclesiastical authority on the other, while still modeling and requiring powerful discipline. Dogmatic starting points are replaced with queries, a Quaker practice and a striking feature of Wittgenstein’s later work.
  • Embracing a role of service rather than of command and control, evident in Wittgenstein’s identification of philosophy with logic or grammar rather than with theory or doctrine, and in the prominence of the service for which Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 as well in the idea of servant-leadership articulated by Robert Greenleaf.
  • The combination of discipline with no dogma or creed or center of authority provides a model for non-hierarchical thought and social organization.

Perhaps all these bulleted points are too schematic to be of much value to others. They did, however, lead Professor Russell Goodman of University of New Mexico to make the following comment about another reader of the Journal, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I was struck in many places by the connections between Fox and Emerson. The basic doctrine of the Divinity School Address—finding the church and ritual a dry husk of the living religious "sentiment"—seems to be just that of Fox. No wonder Emerson pays tribute to [Fox] in two of his greatest essays, "Self-Reliance" and "The Over-Soul."

I think it mattered to Wittgenstein, and perhaps also to Emerson and Joyce, that Fox was set upon by mainstream people, and beaten by them, and continued to confront them. Wittgenstein and the others were as distressed by the smugness and complacency of the people and institutions around him as many of us are today, and Wittgenstein once wrote that what made it all the worse was that there seemed no prospect of revolution in all that solidity. Part of the value for me has been the journey through which I arrived at these points. It has helped me not only to see more dimensions in George Fox, but also to see more dimensions in Ludwig Wittgenstein, and to catch a glimpse of ways in which Quakerism might have a wider role in the world, and thereby give me a firmer sense of what it means to be a Friend. It contributes a bit to fulfilling Robert Burns’s advice that we learn to see ourselves as others see us.